Aqualung‘s Matt Hales is no accidental musician. A child prodigy, he was writing songs by the age of 4 (!), at 16 he was awarded a scholarship to study music in Winchester and by 17 he’d had his first symphony – Life Cycle – performed by a 60-piece orchestra, with Matt himself conducting. Oh and he’s only gone and soundtracked the theme to the recent VW advert with the title track from his new album. Phew. But does all of this talent and expertise (he studied for a music degree at London’s City University) translate into a great LP?
In short, not quite. The eponymous album is a tantalising collection. Matt’s classical training is there for all to hear in the gorgeous piano arrangements that are scattered across the 11 songs. There are several superb tracks that are highly original and genuinely affecting. Strange and Beautiful is adroitly composed and heart-rendingly melancholy, with a Karma Police style hook. Falling Out Of Love is oddly soothing, relaxing pianos cocooning Hales’ pained tones in a protective shell. Good Times Gonna Come has a tortured air epitomised by the recurring angry wall of guitars, while on If I Fall Matt does a remarkable impression of Thom Yorke, against a background of glacial ambience. So far, so good.
Unfortunately though, Hales is unable to maintain this standard throughout and thus the album sinks into an unwelcome mediocrity halfway through. Just For A Moment is lumpen and uninspired. Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind is dull, and Nowhere goes, well, nowhere. Gentle, with its sweeping strings, is a clear attempt at a torch song but ends up nothing more than a damp squib, emotion-lite. Closing track Halfway To The Bottom does at least leave things on a high note, drenched in sadness though it is.
Problems abound. Many of the arrangements are just too sparse and there is an over-reliance on Hales’ piano which tempers the emotional impact. You get the feeling that listening to Strange And Beautiful should be a moving experience, but large parts of it are uncannily bereft of pathos. The lyrical content, centred as it is around ideas of lost love, hard times and depression is, despite Matt’s own protestations, a bit too morose and not particularly uplifting. It can be hard listening at times.
Which is a shame, as you really do get the feeling that this album could have been something special. The positive spin on this though is that you would not be at all surprised if Hales released a stunning effort in the future. A truly wonderful opus may be just around the corner. Certainly the talent is there, as confirmed by the blistering first few tracks. All that might be necessary is the added sparkle of a renowned producer to enrich and elaborate on the raw materials already present. Until then, this is an average rather than great album, high on promise but ultimately short on delivery. Keep an eye on Matt Hales though – and those VW ads.